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Girl Power

High-school teens are charging through rugby’s glass ceiling

Danyelle Khmara Nov 2, 2017 1:00 AM

Girl power is on the rise, and so is girls' rugby. Formidable local teens are joining the Old Pueblo Thunder, Tucson's first high-school girls rugby team.

Tucson has two rugby clubs, but until now neither had a team for girls between the ages of 13 and 18. The six girls in Old Pueblo Thunder, mostly Mountain View High School students, joined for different reasons. But three practices in, none of them shy away from the ball or learning what to do when they're about to be tackled.

"I like contact sports. It makes it more interesting," says Leilana Pye, one of the players. "Some girls like to do more competitive things."

High schooler Elena Weide says rugby is a mixture of her favorite sports, soccer and football. And having grown up with brothers, she knows a lot about tackling. Rugby is like soccer but with hands and tackling, and you can only pass the ball backwards.

While tackling has it's obvious risks, safety is a priority. Rugby teaches players how to safely tackle, and the referee watches closely to avert accidents.

Team member Leila Brown joined up because her dad thinks she's strong, she says after taking out her mouth guard.

"He wants me to play with girls that are my same strength," she says.

These girls are strong, but the rugby coaches make it clear, rugby is for everyone. You don't have to be strong when you sign up—rugby will get you there.

Coach Angela Wagner has been playing rugby off and on for 23 years, after starting in college. Beginning to play in high school is a great opportunity for young women, she says.

She tells the girls on the team that more colleges are starting to offer scholarships for rugby players, and there's less competition than with more popular sports.

"Our team is a sisterhood," she says. "It feels like a family."

Beth Kleinman has 11 years in the sport, and she's a member of the women's team Old Pueblo Lightning. She went to one rugby practice in college, and she was hooked. She exudes joy while talking about rugby.

"Rugby's all inclusive," she says. "There's a million things I love about it."

Rugby has a real sense of community. Kleinman has kept in touch with women for years that she played one game with. And she says because different positions require different strengths, there's something for everyone.

"It's rough. It's hard," she says. "But then after your match, you always have a social." Both teams eat and drink and have a great time. And she doesn't know any other sport that does that.

There are currently 40 high school girls on Arizona rugby teams across the state, according to Julie Nopp, Arizona girls rugby commissioner. Nopp remembers, just six years ago, when there were only four girls. They had to play co-ed games, but the numbers have steadily grown, and last year, they finally had enough girls for more than one team.

Since there's still so few players, the teams play "sevens." But while there's only seven players on the field, it's prefered to have 15 on the team, to rotate.

"Rugby gives girls a chance to express themselves and get all that stuff out," Nopp says.

She's seen girls show up to practice who are going through hard times, and rugby was their therapy. It reminds them they do whatever they set their minds to.

Kleinman joined the Tucson women's team in 2006 and remembers when they can struggled for numbers. When they played games with no subs, the players finished exhausted. But now she said there's about 50 women on the roster.

Players pay club dues, and the clubs are registered with USA Rugby. They use that money to rent field space and buy equipment. The new high school girls' team practices right before the women's team, on the same field.

Rachael Smith, on the women's team, got to practice early to help the girls' practice.

"You get to be tough and not have to apologize," she says, wiping blood off her elbow—a wound from a recent tournament that reopened.

Wagner's three kids all play rugby. Her 20-year-old son is on a college rugby team at Grand Canyon University, and her younger girl and boy, who are 10 and 8, play on a co-ed youth league.

Part of what inspired Wagner to start the girls team was that her own daughter would have nowhere to continue playing after 12. Girls who are 13 can practice with the Old Pueblo Lightning but can't play official games until they turn 14.

Wagner passed out flyers about the team at a bunch of high schools to drum up interest, and of course, they're still accepting players.

"I'm just really excited we're getting this started," Wagner says.

Practice is Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Rillito Park, 4502 N. First Ave., Field 11. Old Pueblo Rugby Club hasn't yet decided on the cost of club dues for the girls team members, but players also need to pay a yearly registration with USA Rugby of $71.50. For more information call Wagner at (806) 220-5272 or just show up to a practice. For additional info go to www.oldpueblorugby.com.